Thursday, 23 February 2017

Black Canyon 100km

The Black Canyon 100km was one of my goal races this year and I was pretty excited about it. I was under no illusions that I would get one of the illustrious "Golden Tickets" to the Western States but I did have a goal in mind - a top 10 finish and a time of around 11 to 11 1/2 hours. Training had gone well leading up to the race and I was feeling fairly confident that I would achieve my goals.

The week before race day, Andy and I headed out to the course to check out the aid stations so that he knew where he needed to be. It was a gorgeously sunny day with blue skies all round and we decided to take the dogs on a bit of a hike whilst we were out there before having lunch and some of the delicious homemade pie at the Rock Springs Cafe near to Black Canyon City. The trails were in amazing shape and with the amount of rain we'd had a couple of weeks earlier, everything was a lush green colour and looked absolutely beautiful. Being on the trail that I would be racing along in just a week's time got me even more excited, and I couldn't wait to get home to start planning my race and getting my drop bags ready. I was feeling mentally and physically ready to race, and I was raring to go.

The weekend before race day - Black Canyon Trail Hike

Checking out the aid stations and the access roads to get there the weekend before

Sometimes things don't quite go as planned. By Wednesday the weather forecast was showing a storm system moving through which would bring lots of rain to the area over race weekend, and with the river already running high due to the previous rainfall in the past couple of weeks, the thought of even more rain and the potential for 2 dangerous water crossings 40+ miles into the race was somewhat exciting yet daunting at the same time. There was rumour of a possible course change due to the weather, and then the final announcement came - due to the threat of heavy rain on race day and the threat of flash flooding, the race course would be changed. It would now be an out and back course which would avoid the river crossing and would instead turn back before we had even reached Black Canyon City.

I felt deflated. I completely understood the reasoning for changing the course and I was in complete support of the decision, but I couldn't help feeling extremely disappointed. It wasn't because we would no longer be going across the rivers which would have added a little bit of adventure - it was more to do with my mental preparation for the race.

Although I hadn't seen the first half of the race, I had been told that there was a lot of downhill and being a strong downhill runner, I felt this would be to my advantage. Meanwhile, having done the training run along the last 25 miles back in January, I was already familiar with that section of the course and I knew that despite it being more technical with 2 good climbs on that section, I had felt confident that I could still run strong to finish in around 11 hours.

However, now that it was out and back, it meant lots of downhill followed by lots of uphill. Although my climbing has greatly improved recently, there is still room for improvement and the thought of running 30 miles downhill followed by 30 miles back up just wasn't appealing. How on earth do you pace a race like that? Do I use the downhill to my advantage as planned and risk bashing my quads which would then make the climbs even more difficult, or do I take it steady on the down and save myself for the ups? 

But I didn't feel disappointed just for me. I was disappointed for my support crew Andy and Jeremy who had already planned out their day so they could be there for me and also spend a bit of time enjoying the trails and doing their own thing whilst I was still running. Now they might not be able to even get to the aid stations due to access being on dirt roads, there was a possibility that they would be closed to crew depending on how bad the roads got with the rain, and so their plans would need to change too. I also felt bad for my pacer who would once again be Adam - this now messed up any plans he might have made for the day too.

I tried desperately to get my head back in the right place, but a huge part of me was throwing my teddies out of the pram - I didn't want to run it now because it wouldn't be the race I had planned for. I would have to redo my race plan, rearrange my drop bags and reluctantly tell Andy and Jeremy that the plans we'd made were now out of the window - it all felt so last minute which made me feel completely disorganised for a race that I'd had big hopes for.

All planned out ready for race day - except I wasn't!

Thankfully Andy and Jeremy helped to turn my mindset around and by the time I went to race packet pickup on the Friday afternoon, I was starting to feel more optimistic again. The thought of rain never really bothered me and I was well prepared to get wet and cold as the day went on. I was also now more clear about my race plan, readjusting my goal to a sub 12 hours to allow for the bad weather conditions and the inevitable slower pace making the climb back up to Mayer High School. I was ready to race again and I was ready to give it my all.

The start of the race at Mayer High School was about 40 minutes drive from home and when we left home just after 5.30am, the rain had already started falling. By the time we arrived at the start, it was falling steadily and muddy puddles were already forming on the track where we would be starting. The school gym was full of runners in hats and gloves with waterproof jackets and I barely recognised many of the folks I have come to know thanks to the layers of clothing they were wearing. It was hard to believe that this time last year it was 80+ degrees and one of the hottest years for the Black Canyon race, and yet here were were, dressed in winter gear!

As we were ushered outside for the start, we all huddled together under the shelter to keep warm and despite the gloomy weather, everybody was in great spirits. It was going to be a good day no matter what, and I was starting to feel that excited apprehension I always get just before the start of a race.

By 7am we were off, rain still falling as daylight started to break through. The first couple of miles were on road before we finally turned off on to the trail and that's when it started. It was already extremely slippery and muddy, and it was hard work trying to keep a decent pace going when we were slip sliding all over the place and our shoes got weighted down with mud. WE were only a couple of miles in to the race and we still had a long way to go - things would only get worse underfoot and it was going to be a very long hard slog for everybody racing for the rest of the day.

Conditions out on course early on in the day and things just got worse
Photo Credit: Melissa Ruse, SweetMImages

I'm not going to go into any great detail about this race simply because for once I don't recall the detail. All I know is that I spent most of the day looking down at my feet, trying to avoid falling on wet, slippery rocks, and if it wasn't rocky, we were splashing our way through ankle deep mud and sloppy puddles. It rained pretty much all day and for the first time ever in an ultra, I ran in a jacket for pretty much the entire race. I wore gloves for the best part which I had to wring out every half hour as they got so wet they were hanging off my hands. My shoes had 6 inches of mud on them which added extra weight, making things even tougher than normal, and no matter how much I tried to shake it off, it stuck like glue.

At over 4,000 ft at the start of the race, the surrounding mountains were shrouded in mist and at times you could barely see 100 yards ahead. Later in the day, when it started to go dark, it was quite eerie up there with so few people about, and all you could see was the occasional shadow coming out of the mist as runners approached.

Bumble Bee Aid Station - Misty Mountains, Rain and Mud
There really was quite a lot of downhill in the first half, but there was also some uphill and as the mud got worse and worse, it was even more difficult to get a grip to run efficiently. I've already mentioned that it was raining pretty much all day long, but as the day wore on and the wind picked up, it really did start to feel extremely chilly and even I was starting to think that may be I should have added another layer. The nail on my big toe was getting seriously bruised and sore, and because my feet were so wet, my socks were starting to slide down my foot and I had to change my shoes and socks just to stop trench foot setting in and to get rid of the gritty sand that was building up inside.

Battling the hills, mud and rain at Black Canyon Ultra
Photo Credit: SweetMImages

My support crew were amazing. Andy was there as ever, making sure I had everything I needed and ensuring I made swift time through the aid stations, and it was a welcoming sight to see Jeremy happy and smiling at Bumble Bee Aid Station, despite the really sh**ty muddy, wet conditions. He said all the right things, he encouraged me and helped me more than he perhaps realised, and I was so happy that he was there and was able to help out.

Bumble Bee Aid Station - Mud, Mud, Glorious Mud!
Photo CRedit: Jon Christley (AZTRL)
And then of course there's Adam. What can I say about Adam other than yet again, he was the most amazing pacer I could have asked for. He didn't mind the rain, he encouraged me to run when I thought I couldn't, and he wasn't offended when I started swearing and chuntering at the crazy climb before that last aid station. He has such a way of bringing out the best in people and I honestly believe that he helped me immensely in achieving my sub 12 hour goal and finishing in the top ten ladies.

Those last 7 miles from the final aid station to the finish were extremely tough. Darkness was setting in and the rain was lashing down. The trails were now a quagmire and in places had become rivers., and there was so much mud that it was just easier to run through it than try to avoid it. The wind had picked up and it was starting to feel very cold as it penetrated even my waterproof and windproof jacket.

I remember that last little bit of downhill before hitting the road again - it was so slick and slippery and it was so hard to stay upright on tired legs. The stretch before hitting the road was just like a mud bath - we were absolutely soaking wet, filthy dirty and I found myself hysterically laughing my head off at how ridiculous this was as I watched Adam just ahead of me trying desperately to stay on his feet whilst dancing away in the mud with a gusty wind blowing.

As we hit the dirt road, things weren't much better, but by now I could see the lights of the school just a mere 2 miles or so away. My legs were killing me from all the downs and ups in the mud, my toes were sore, but I tried my best to run those last 2 miles, and finally, finally, I made the turning back into the school and headed towards the finish line. Andy and Jeremy were there to greet me and it was so good to see them both and share in the joy of finishing with my little team :-)

Final results had me placed as 7th lady in 11 hours 46 minutes - both goals met resulting in a very happy Del :-)

Mission Accomplished :-)

Black Canyon 100k was something like my 15th race with Aravaipa Running and I have to say that out of all them, this is definitely my favourite. I loved starting up in the mountains and the exposure those first few miles gave before dropping down in to the lower deserts and seeing all the familiar cacti and other vegetation. There was plenty of single track, I'm sure the views on a clear day are stunning, and despite it being what many would consider to be a downhill course, it is still extremely challenging. I still want to do the "proper" course and so long as I am fit and healthy, I know that I will be there again next year.

Before I finish, there are a few folks that I need to thank.

Andy - although you drive me nuts at times, you really are one in a million - thank you!

Adam - what can I say? You really are an awesome dude and I can't thank you enough for the help and guidance you have given me over the past few months, both as a coach and an amazing pacer. You have such a calm confidence about you, and I admire how you are able to push people harder than they thought possible, and how you make people want to do their best because they don't want to let you down. Your words of encouragement when I really didn't want to run were a huge help, even if I was moaning about you to myself at the time ;-)

Jeremy - for your first time as support crew, you did an amazing job! Thank you so much for waiting at Bumble Bee for me for hours in the pouring rain. Thank you for making me eat, for making me drink, for having your umbrella to hand and a dry towel. Those things matter even if you think they don't. I hope the weather didn't put you off and that you have the chance to crew again - not all races are that bad, honest!

Wilson and Brandy - oh my gosh, it was so good to see you both at the aid station and have you wash some of the mud off my legs and to give me those much needed puppy kisses :-D

Arizona Traileggers - you guys are fab! I've lost count of how many of you I saw during the race, how many of you shouted out encouragement, and whilst I may not run with you as often as I would like, you continue to support me no matter what. You are such fantastic friends and a huge part of my running family - THANK YOU ALL!

Aravaipa Running and all the volunteers - I'm amazed at how quickly you turned things around to make so many changes to a huge race in such a short timescale. Your professionalism and superb organisation made the event better than I expected despite the changes, and I had the most amazing day.

Finally, I have to say a huge congratulations to ALL the runners that toed the line that day, regardless of whether they finished, regardless of what time they ran. Those conditions sure tested the body, mind and soul of each and every one of us, and I know that some folks were suffering from from the cold as the night wore on. It really was horrendous out there and the fact that we gave it our best shot shows what tough cookies we all are. Every race will seem easy now in comparison!

I'm now taking a few days to recover from our adventure before I start to build back up again. I have another race in just 6 weeks time - the Whiskey Basin 88km race in Prescott in April. Prescott is one of my favourite places in Arizona, and I am so looking forward to racing again :-)

Post Race Birthday Celebrations - CAKE!!

1 comment:

  1. It was fun for me, and I am glad I was able to help out. It sure was cold at the finish though. The wind was really gusting. I had to make sure you had a happy birthday though.


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